Four Tips for Sustainable Farm Design: The Goat Garden at Wübu

  (Ver versión en Español: Cuatro consejos para el Diseño de Granjas Sostenibles)

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture

After the first season of alternative farming our neighbors were already impressed; the Pig Gardens produces the largest cassava tubers the village has ever seen.  Here at Wübu, a farm near Livingston, Guatemala, we're demonstrating sustainable strategies—regenerating soil, planting for biodiversity, using organic pesticides.  With 100 acres to convert from chemical cornfields to organic polycultures, designing new cultivation areas has been a reoccurring job.

The Goat Gardens (named for the livestock who initially cleared the area) are one of many such jobs, from which our methods are constantly being improved and adapted.  It's also the example here for sharing Four Tips for Sustainable Farm Design.

A 10-lb cassava plant.


Tip #1 - Design for access.
Avoid those labyrinthine maze-gardens that make navigation a nightmare, that reduce the efficiency of your labor and eventually sap your will to work there.  A central access path should be the first and foremost design concern.  Secondary paths should branch from that.  Then, and only then, should you consider locations of garden beds, trees and even structures.

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
The main access path up the right side,
with secondary paths branching off to the left.

So how do you design the central path?  Identify the most natural, logical place.  Simply walk through the area as you would from one frequented location to another, from the house to the goat shed for example, and see where your feet naturally take you.  Follow the natural contours of the landscape. Avoid rocks or trees, steep ground or any other obstacle to passing wheelbarrows, horses, tractors or whatever mode of transport you plan to use.  Imagine yourself walking beyond the current area into future uncultivated areas.

In the case of the Goat Garden, a gulley with steep sides, the most logical path was entering at the lowest point nearest the house, following up along the length of the gulley, and exiting at the top where the sides are least steep.  Allowing ample space for crops to grow, all beds and swales branched from that.


Tip #2 - Plant on contour.
Planting on contour, meaning level, meaning perpendicular to slope, helps catch eroding soil and build fertility.  Either brush fences, rows of stakes, or swales can serve this purpose.  In the goat garden we dug two main swales, marked with an A-level.  All secondary beds were also rows on contour.

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
First, mark contour lines using an A-level.
Learn more about marking contour lines at Wubu Agro-forestry.
Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Second, dig the swales along the marked contour lines.
Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Third and fourth, mulch and plant the mounds, respectively.

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Fifth, watch your plants grow!
Learn more about contour lines and get involved with my non-profit: Contour Lines Corp


Tip #3 - Mulch.
Bare soil must always be covered.  Just compare the dark, rich, leaf-covered soil of a forest floor to that crusty, infertile patch in someone's yard.   A layer of organic material, such as fallen leaves or branches, prevents both soil erosion as well as moisture loss through evaporation. A thick mulch layer can block the growth of many weed species.  Furthermore, the organic matter feeds microorganisms and eventually decomposes into rich soil.

Here in the Goat Garden, we brought bags of leaves from the forest, chopped-and-dropped tree branches while opening the area for sunlight, and later, to prevent chickens from scratching away the lighter mulch, we covered the beds with whole palm fronds as a shield.

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
A well-mulched garden:
 little weed pressure and little disturbance from chickens.
Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
The same view, 2 months later.

Tip #4 - Plant Polycultures.

Planting a diversity of plants in one area provides multiple benefits.  It reduces pest and disease pressure.  It reduces competition because different plants occupy different spacial niches and require different nutrients.  It also allows cooperation between certain plants, such as in the classic example of the Three Sisters, intercropping beans that fix nitrogen, with corn that serves as a trellis for the beans, with squash that cover weeds. 

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Sweet potato growing beneath and between the papaya,
with rows of chipilin above each trench.

In the Goat Garden, papaya and chili are the main producers, while sweet potato (a shade-tolerant ground cover) grows beneath them smothering weeds and chipilin (a legume shrub with edible leaves) fixes nitrogen and creates mulch.

Bonus Tip - Value-added Products.
The problem with many demonstration farms is they only demonstrate how to be a demonstration farm, sustaining themselves with grant money and course fees rather than real income from agriculture.  Instead, Wübu strives to be a model that local farmers can actually replicate.  The model must be profitable.  

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture, Value-adding, drying, solar dryer, flour, chili

Greatly increasing profitability is value-added products (VAP).  Rather than selling tomatoes directly in local markets for Q5 ($0.64) per pound, for example, tomatoes processed into salsa could be sold for Q15 ($1.92) or Q25 ($3.21) per pound, or up to Q50 ($6.41) to Q100 ($12.82) in fancy organic stores or abroad.  In the case of the Goat Garden, we process chili into hot sauce, dry papaya slices for dried fruit mixes, dry and grind sweet potato into flour and dry chipilin leaves for teas, salads or condiments.  Drying, smoking, jarring, fermenting, pickling—any preservation strategy not only increases a crop's shelf-life, but also its value.

Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Volunteers Ben and Sarah, the muscle behind the garden installation.
Garden design, permaculture, Livingston Guatemala, swales, contour, regenerative agriculture
Suzy, Marta and Maria, the muscle behind the garden preparation.

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